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Lonely, but united: Sherry Turkle and Steven Johnson on technology's pain and promise

Lonely, but united: Sherry Turkle and Steven Johnson on technology's pain and promise


Paul Miller talks to the authors about what technology wants

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tj3 1020

Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, and Steven Johnson, author of Future Perfect, joined forces at the New York Public Library on Wednesday night to discuss their respective books — his new on shelves, and hers new in paperback. Turkle described Johnson as "provocatively utopian," and herself as "provocatively pessimistic." She was kind to describe their two books as a matched set, because at first glance there isn't much in common between the two titles: Alone Together is a dense, voraciously researched work that reveals the many ways technology is hurting our relationships, conversations, and intimacy. Future Perfect is an easier read that offers nascent examples of a growing trend of internet-style "peer networks" (like Kickstarter) for solving problems that free markets or top-down organizations have trouble with.

It took a while for the two authors to find a common ground. Turkle's primary concern is, with all seriousness, to get families to talk to each other at the dinner table instead of texting. Johnson's ideas have a strong political slant to them: he calls himself a "peer progressive," as opposed to a liberal or conservative — it was entertaining to hear of a third political option the night of the first presidential debate between Obama and Romney.

Turkle is often derided as a "Luddite," while Johnson gets "utopian" a lot. But hearing them describe their positions in person was a chance for them to color in the subtleties. Turkle sees her latest work as "repentant," after years of championing the benefits of technology, even though she still loves the potential of that technology, while Johnson admits there are costs to his method of engaging with the world through "weak-tie" networks. He also mourns his reduced ability to just sit down and read a book.

"I now have these days where I touch the minds of hundreds of people."

But, he says, "I now have these days where I touch the minds of hundreds of people," through Twitter, shared links, emails, and texts. Movements like Occupy Wall Street demonstrate, to him, the power that a simple hashtag can have when magnified and spread through a peer network, and the fight against SOPA and PIPA demonstrated real political action through similar methods — though he hasn't yet seen a bill be created by a similar process.

Turkle agrees with the potential of the networks, but isn't as enthused about the "weak-tie" aspect: "For this good stuff to happen, people need to talk to each other," she says. What concerns her is that young people might think political action can be comprised entirely of a Like button, an echo of Malcolm Gladwell's argument during the social media-rich Arab Spring.

Johnson sees what he calls an "ambiguous middle ground" of activism and civil participation — akin to how we live the lives of a pseudo-celebrity in front of our small friend group on Twitter and Facebook. There's a new place between the role of ordinary citizen and elected official, where a peer network can feed ideas, solutions, and resources into public problems — like funding the arts [Kickstarter], reviewing patents [peer to patent], and reporting potholes [311].

In contrast, Turkle talked about how people these days are texting during funerals. Only during the "boring bits," they protest, and Turkle argues that things worth doing — like grassroots political campaigning — involve boring bits.

"I know the cost, but I choose it."

As the authors were offering their final points at the end of the Q&A, Johnson hit on a metaphor that, for once, everyone could agree on: the city.

The city, like the internet, is noisy, distracting, overwhelming, and potentially isolating. But people choose the city for its stimulus and connection, says Johnson, "and for me technology is like that: I know the cost, but I choose it."

Turkle jotted down the metaphor on her notepad before responding:

"The best artists learned to find solitude in the middle of the metropolitan space," she said. And "we need to learn to find solitude in the technological space."